Flying with little kids is rarely straightforward, but long flights — especially transcontinental flights — pose a special challenge. Local writer Evelyn Shoop recently traveled overseas with her family, so I asked her to share her best tips with us. — Asha
Recently my husband and I flew to India with our two young children. If anyone needed hacks for long-haul air travel with kids, it was us.
I’m an anxious flyer. I used to be carefree and jet-setting, but kids, current events, and brutal slogs to the airport have changed my wing-and-a-prayer attitude. These days I would rather do anything than fly. Yet my husband and I share a sense of adventure, and travel and staying connected to family are very important to us.
Our active boys are three-and-a-half and five-and-a-half. From our home in Portland, Oregon, it would take us six flights and 40 hours of flying round-trip, and our longest flight was 15 hours. I was unexpectedly pregnant and suffering from morning sickness. Our five-year-old gets motion sickness (spoiler alert: he threw up on our first flight).
I share these obstacles because if we can do it, you can too. And we would definitely do it again. Our experience was vivid and soul-filling, and we were able to weather the travel challenges with a few simple tricks up our sleeves.
Here are my hacks for long-haul air travel with young kids.
1. Get kids invested in the trip beforehand by letting them choose snacks and pack their carry-ons.
If there’s anything that will get a preschooler excited, it’s ownership of a few special treats. We showed the kids pictures of the family we would be seeing, but the treats were the real motivator. They kept asking, “Can we go to India now?!”
Each child also got a special airplane “fun kit” containing a notebook, lots of loose-leaf paper, markers, and a few simple toys. When the items were assembled, each of our kids got to pack up their own carry-ons, which felt like a really important grown-up job.
2. Choose carry-ons your children can roll or carry themselves.
Each of our party of four needed a carry-on for trip supplies, and sometimes the three-year-old needed to be carried himself. Having small, roller backpacks that our kids could be independently in charge of was incredibly useful. Not only did it make them feel like real travelers, but it gave my husband and me a break from needing to haul everything. When the three-year-old got too tired, it was easy to roll an adult bag and wear a child’s roller backpack.
3. Bring your own children’s headphones.
Although international flights usually have free entertainment systems and headphones for every passenger, having your own kids’ headphones is key. You can ensure that they fit well and your kids can practice with them before the flight.
Note: The children’s headphones pictured here have volume control and a sharing port built-in.
4. Don’t forget the lovies or snugglies.
International travel means a lot of transitions and sleep adjustments, so comforting lovies are crucial. The trick is to triple-check that they are packed and not to lose them. I love that the stick-on labels I get from Oliver’s Labels have a free “Found-it” code so that if you do lose a lovey, it can hopefully find its way back to you.
Note: A classic parent hack from waaaaay back: attach the lovey your kid’s clothing with a mitten clip.
5. Triple-check your seat assignments when you check in.
Of our six flights, we only had one issue—unfortunately on the longest flight. The airline separated us into two rows, each pair in the very middle of a four-seat row. My husband had selected our seats online months before, and checked every flight before the trip, but it’s not enough to rely on that planning. Check your seat assignments again if you call the airline the day before, then again at the check-in counter, and last at the gate right when you get there.
6. Bring a carrier or stroller for preschoolers.
Our three-year-old did pretty well following along with his roller backpack, but he got plenty tired and whiny, too. It can be a long distance between terminals for tight connections. We packed our squishy Ergo carrier for these situations, and we were so grateful. (We felt like a stroller would add too much bulk given the amount of travel we’d be doing, but on previous trips, a simple, fold-up stroller had been indispensable.)
7. Pack plenty of food, including snackable protein.
There were times when it felt like all four of us were ready to melt down (mostly during transitions between flights). Not having to rely on when we might get the next meal was important. It was really helpful to have squeezy peanut butter, pepperoni, and a protein bar or two in addition to crackers, raisins, and applesauce packets that the kids enjoyed.
8. Make sure you have wet wipes, plastic bags, and two sets of extra clothes for each child.
Plan ahead for potty accidents, throw-up, and food spills. I mentioned my son threw up on our first flight. I had packed baby wipes and light towels for clean-ups, plus sealable plastic bags, but it was the extra sets of clothes that really saved us.
9. Gummy melatonin is your friend—bring plenty.
I was most worried about sleep schedules on the trip, because I become psychotic when sleep-deprived. Adjusting all four of us to an opposite time zone seemed insurmountable. Gummy melatonin saved us!
I am not a doctor or naturopath, and I recommend that you do your own research before you choose to use or not use melatonin. I do know it worked for our family with no negative side effects. My husband and I took 5mg dissolvable melatonin tabs, and the kids took 5mg chewable melatonin gummies. I would bring two bottles next time, because it helped the kids adjust to sleep times in-country, but then we ran out when we were home adjusting back to “normal.”
10. Prepare travel pharmaceuticals (Dramamine, melatonin, ibuprofen, etc.) in a plastic pill organizer.
Pack any medications you need in a container that fits easily into your carry-on. You can pick up a daily medications organizer at the pharmacy for under five bucks. I packed melatonin (children’s and adult), Advil, various morning sickness remedies, prenatal pills, Dramamine, and fiber gummies. Hopefully you won’t need everything, but you’ll have peace of mind to know it’s at-hand.
For more practical advice, check out International Travel with Kids: 10 Lessons Learned by Sarah Ruttan.
We took our first international family trip to Europe my kids were six and two. We, too, had a kid throw up on the way over. But despite the jet lag and the mishaps and the whiny moments, we’d do it all again in a heartbeat. — Asha
Photo credit: Evelyn Shoop
I’ve devoted an entire chapter of PARENT HACKS to travel with kids. Check out the book — it’s the perfect gift for a new or expectant parent. Find out more, or order now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your favorite independent bookstore.